It is 10:00 a.m. on a surprisingly pleasant January day. A bank of windows along one wall lets in the sunshine; when several children complain that the room is too warm, Dehea Smith opens a window and a breeze moves through the room. The twenty-one children in Dehea's third-grade classroom are working at a variety of tasks. One group of three works with a set of geography materials, two children work at the computer typing in their newsletter entry about the stage design they are working on for the school TV news program. Others work on a "Museum of the World" display that will organize some of the artifacts that the class has collected over the first semester of the year. Others are completing their "Morning Goals"--usually work in math or literature. The classroom is small and crowded. Children sit in groups of three, either at desks turned to face each other or at two round tables in the middle of the room. These are new groups, and the children have hung signs above each set of desks or table with their group name on it: Radical Red Rovers, Chkemy, Brown-eyed Tigers, and so forth. Earlier in the year students had trouble working cooperatively. Over the first semester, Dehea assigned partners, occasionally moving into larger groups for some tasks. They have been working in groups of three since the new semester began. As the children finish up their work, Dehea passes out booklets entitled "Government is for Kids, Too!"
Dehea Smith: We've studied things far away, either in time or location--or both! Can you think of anything we've studied that was far away in location?
Several voices: The rainforest!
Dehea Smith: Yes, rainforests are far away from here. What about something we've studied that was far away in time?
Lily: Native Americans in the old days.
Dehea Smith: Right. It's interesting to study things that are far away from us, but it is also important to know something about things a little closer to home. There's also something else that will be different about this study. When we studied the rainforest, I picked many things that we were going to study. And when we studied Native Americans, Ms. Armstrong [student teacher] made a lot of the decisions about what questions we would investigate. But this time, you are going to make most of those decisions.
Kayla: So, we're kinda like the teacher?
Dehea Smith: Well, you will certainly be doing some of the things that teachers often do.
Marshall: We get to decide on the questions?
Dehea Smith That's right. But in order to know what questions we want to answer, its good to find out what we already know. I'm curious to know what you already know about Lexington. For instance, how many of you have ever been to a place that's bigger than Lexington? [General discussion of places that are bigger] Can you think of a place smaller than Lexington?